Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On why no torture

Okay, so the Practically Harmless world has been thrown into quivery excitement by the appearance of an old friend in Friday's torture post. Jimmy, a friend whom I haven't seen in probably seven years, pops himself up to report that he's actually in the shit as we speak and to deliver a uniquely qualified opinion from someone who is, well, currently, well, y'know.

Anyway, I promised Jimmy a thoughtful response to his thoughtful comment, and although Doug has since dropped another comment (along with an enthusiastic barrage of f-bombs) that sums a lot of it up, I thought I'd put in my two, far less passionately profane, cents.

Here's the thing about torture: It's bad. It's hurting people on purpose, and it's a widely-accepted tenet of civilized society that hurting people on purpose is a bad thing. Torture is actually a sign of narcissism; it's one person invading and defiling the sanctity of another person's actual body, assuming a position of superiority over a victim and denying that victim's humanity. It reduces the person being tortured to the value of an inanimate object that can be kicked about at will, and it has lasting negative effects on the person doing the torturing as well. To pass legislation saying that we're hunky-dory with torture as a national standard for treatment of human beings cheapens us as a country that takes such pride in our liberty and brings us down to the level of the very people we've deposed and invaded for being objectively evil. And why do we call them objectively evil? Because of their tendency to torture people.

So that's why no torture.

Now, Jimmy made a good argument, bringing up the point of LTC Shane West, who was relieved of his command after firing off a pistol and making a detainee wet himself and give up information that ultimately saved the lives of 25 of his soldiers. I'm glad that those men were saved, and were Jimmy in similar danger, I like to think that someone would do whatever it takes to keep him safe. But if you choose borderline or full-on unethical tactics, you still should be called on them. It is unfortunate that sometimes doing the right thing involves doing bad things, but that doesn't make the bad things any less bad. The man who steals to feed his family has done a good thing in putting food on the table, but he's still accomplished it by doing a bad thing.

I do think that circumstances should be considered when people are called to account; the man who stole a loaf of bread for his family doesn't deserve the same punishment as the man who stole the 25" TV, and the man who kills his mugger on the street can usually argue for self-defense. But we can't legalize stealing simply because people have to eat, or legalize killing because people get mugged; stealing and killing are still wrong. Far be it from me to drag Kant's universal imperative into the whole thing, but the idea that we can't legalize torture because people shouldn't torture isn't too much of a stretch. And even if Jimmy saved a hundred lives by beating a detainee into his component atoms, Jimmy should still be held accountable for his actions. Does that make sense? It shouldn't.

Moreover, very little of the torture currently under debate by Congress is the actual suitcase-nuke-on-its-way-to-Los-Angeles, four-seconds-left-on-the-digital-display Jack Bauer stuff. We're also talking about interrogation and standard treatment of detainees who may or may not be useful assets to the US. The argument is usually that "these people are terrorists" and "they wouldn't hesitate to cut our heads off if they got the chance," but the fact is, a considerable percentage of these people are taxi drivers or fruit sellers who were picked up by mistake. Or cases of mistaken identity. Or low-level functionaries who, it turns out, were actually schizophrenic and able to provide questionable intelligence from three distinct different personalities. Torture is a hard enough idea to take when you can imagine a homogenously evil and deranged person on the receiving end; imagine a man who was picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it becomes well-nigh nauseating.

My weak stomach notwithstanding, torture also puts our own troops at risk. In the first Gulf War, much bloodshed was saved simply because many Iraqi troops were more wiling to surrender than fight to the death. They did this because the US had, at the time, a reputation for treating prisoners with some degree of dignity, because we were likely to treat them better as detainees than Saddam had as troops. We've since lost that advantage. And the recently released National Intelligence Estimate shows that US actions in Iraq have actually made us less safe from terrorism in part because we're pissing people off and spawning a new generation of violent radicals.

And that's why no torture. Because torture doesn't work. Because torture results in questionable intelligence. Because torturing people puts our own people in danger. And most of all (in my mind, at least), because torturing is bad for everyone: the person being tortured, the person doing the torturing, and the society trying to pretend that torturing is okay. I support the government gathering intelligence to keep our country safe. I support our troops in the Middle East doing what it takes to keep us, and each other, safe. But torturing is bad.

And that's why no torture.

No comments: